Greetings from Kangding China,
When I think of Tibet, images of the Potala Palace and the red robed monk with the beguiling smile instantly appear in my mind's eye. But, Tibet is much more than the trappings of the ancient Buddhist traditions embodied in that impressive structure or the controversies surrounding the Dalai Lami. It is the people; it is the language; it is the vast lofty plateau; the ancient customs and traditions as well as the religions and folklore. Kangding is a wild frontier town where the eastern edge of Tibet begins. It is here I ventured this week to enjoy my first on-the-spot sampling of all things Tibetan.
About twenty scruffy Tibetan construction workers riding in the back of our luxurious bus on cut-rate tickets kept up a constant raucous chatter in a language none of the rest of us could understand. This, my Han-Chinese bilingual companion for the day confirmed when questioned about the unusual sounds coming from the motley crew in the back during our seven hour journey. The strictly non-smoking, air conditioned bus had prohibition decals affixed to every window, but several of the rowdy guys insisted on repeatedly testing the resolve of the young female hostess, even sneaking into the on-board toilet compartment when all other subterfuges failed.
For the first four hours of the drive we were embraced by greenness; farmland, pristine meadows, hillsides covered with vines and bushes. Numerous bee keepers offered their wild honey from makeshift stands along the road. Long stretches of the well engineered highway could have been a part of the American interstate system. Cargo trucks carrying crushed rock, bags of grain, melons, and refrigerated produce shared the road with the occasional passenger car. The kid across the isle forgot his mother's urging to "cover your mouth when you cough." Actually, no one in China makes any effort to protect others from their coughs and sneezes and at least two other passengers clearly had colds or the flu! In all likelihood mothers don't pass on that sage advice to their children in this country any more than they show disapproval of spitting in public. Most passengers passed the time watching a series of Chinese (only) action videos: whining, pleading women; barking, aggressive men; continuous sounds of urgency accompanied by crashing cymbals and the staccato rattle of drums; sometimes calmed by sounds of traditional instruments with their inharmonious melodies.
During the last couple hours of the trip we followed the deep winding river gorge on what reminded me of the Bolivian Death Road I traveled last year. The high cliffs on either side of the river suggest a relentless canyon formation process lasting millennia! Much of the road had to be ripped out of the solid stone face. Sometimes hardly wide enough for the required wide turns of our behemoth alone, the mostly paved road could barely accommodate two passing cars at many places with steep drops to the raging river off to the side. Strategically installed guard rails provided a meager sense of security. I saw no evidence there had ever been an accident on that unique mountain road. I shuddered to think what would happen to a big bus like ours were we to go over the side. For a while we would enjoy a wild ride careening down the rapids through the twisting channel until something ripped a hole in our chamber.
When I got off the bus in Kangding it felt like I had stepped back decades into rural America. The bus station resembled a dark dingy warehouse crowded with disorder. The obscure exit belched passengers immediately out onto the partially paved side street full of potholes and cluttered with haphazardly parked conveyances. Reaching the main street winding its way through town things got progressively more civilized. Still, strange looking Asian people wearing odd "trench coats" jostled one another as I dashed in the direction of the city center looking for a decent hotel. The entire developed parts of town extend only about six to eight blocks along the river and out two or three blocks on either side of it. I passed many hotels of questionable suitability without a second look.
The first place I actually checked looked promising at only 180 Yuan ($27) and a reception staff trying hard to communicate with this English only speaker. The tenth floor room in the SeXiaAngBa Hotel had a queen size bed, carpeting, a TV set, a well lighted modern shower stall, an interesting view of the street action below and an unpronounceable name. So I took it as my first night abode and immediately went out to continue my hotel shopping for something better. Being so compact a few hours of brisk walking in the light sprinkle got me everywhere that first evening.
The Love Song Hotel, the name made famous by an old traditional Sichuan folk song is the best in the city. With an inviting lobby, attentive staff and one doorman elaborately costumed in traditional Tibetan garb who spoke a smattering of English, it offered rooms for $85 up. The next morning I had breakfast there to more thoroughly check it out and discovered the usual vegetarian fare: weeds, boiled eggs, rice, noodles, tea, etc. all cold! As a non-guest I paid $3 for the privilege of filling my belly with green roughage. All tables were the usual eight foot diameter with ten chairs intended for gangs of humanity all of whom enjoy a good smoke with their noodles. Around one of the big tables sat a group of military officers. I figured staying in the best hotel in town must have been one of the perks offered to guys posted in this desolate out of the way place. The dining room featured a disc jockey who played military march music loudly, apparently to please the military types in the room. The hotel is rated four star, but the breakfasts would arouse complaints from almost any American prison population! I never did find out what kind of breakfast they had at the SeXiaAngBa Hotel where I stayed as none of the dining room staff ever made an appearance that morning.
Kangding is the "real" China: intoxicated with things modern, yet struggling to outgrow its old traditional "wild west" roots. The town has a reputation as a irksome problem child for the Chinese government with its formerly remote isolation and ethnic minority inhabitants. Today the population is evenly divided between the indigenous Tibetan people and ethnic Han immigrants. Everyone speaks Tibetan except for the numerous Chinese immigrants who have been flooding into the area as a result of the central government's policy of encouraging ethnic Han migration to areas with predominantly minority populations. Chinese travel guides hint the town offers foreign visitors an authentic peek at traditional Tibetan life. To be sure, quite a few people I saw in town have not been corrupted by Western fashions; old customs continue to circumscribe the lives of many people still living in the surrounding rural areas. Most are easy to spot by their distinctive ruddy complexions and high cheek bones as well as their unusual clothing.
Kids are a different matter. All the teenagers I saw might have been from the "big city" judging from their outlandish clothing choices and rebellious behavior. In the town square I watched hoards of younger kids racing around on their articulated skateboards as they tried to see how close they could come to the foreign stranger in their midst without actually hitting him. A dozen or so Tibetan ladies in their traditional finest walked in groups through the congested plaza eyeing me as closely as I them. The irony became obvious as we smiled at one another in passing. The Han-Chinese on the plaza also noted the entourage of ladies in their colorful garb, more or less ignoring me until they had passed and then returning to the usual ogling of the white haired foreigner.
I had planned to make Kangding the first of many stops on the way to Batang several hundred kilometers further west at the very edge of civilization. This region in south-west Sichuan Province is the start of the Tibetan plateau. Away from the city, the scattered rural population is mainly Tibetan. While the road from Chengdu is paved, heading further west promised dirt and gravel surfaces and even more primitive accommodations in the few scattered towns along the way.
The next morning symptoms of a common cold suggested someone had shared their virus with me on the packed bus 24 hours earlier. The prospect of nursing a runny nose, raspy throat, headache and uncomfortable breathing in anything but a modern Western style hotel added to my growing disillusionment. Disappointed with the accommodation choices and no place in town serving Western style food under sanitary conditions, I decided to defer any further explorations for the time being.
The next morning I grabbed the same deluxe bus on which I had arrived for the 6-7 hour trip back. About two hours into the schedule we ran into an impossible traffic jam: trucks and buses backed up at a standstill for two kilometers. Smaller cars, motorcycles and bikes immediately turned around apparently heading for well known detours. Turning for our monster and many of the twelve wheelers appeared next to impossible. So, we all waited, creeping forward as some ahead of us gave up. The crowd of protesters causing all the congestion also marched slowly forward to an intersection where they stopped for an extended rally. After more than an hour and a half we got close enough to see the banners. Two bilingual passengers gave me confused explanations of the banners, neither seeming to find the "precise" words for what was happening. Obviously the people were unhappy with something and apparently were directing their protests at the government.
Finally, police instructed all of the waiting vehicles to turn around and seek alternate routes. Our bus driver obviously reluctant to put his expensive road machine and its precious cargo in any jeopardy had long conversations with police and local residents about the best detour for him to take. Two older bridges crossed the river nearby and we gingerly crept onto one of them, tip-toeing across. The road on the other side had been designed for country conveyances, foot traffic and pack animals.
Progress down the path meant stopping to allow farmers to remove the mats of drying grain protruding out into the road, repositioning a clothesline so the bus would not rip it out, gathering playing children into safe corals, waiting until a herd of sheep could be coaxed out of the way, and finally pausing at the point where a canopy covering a large outdoor roadside dining establishment hung so low over the path it hit the wind screen of our bus. Ladies with long bamboo poles tried to lift the support lines high enough so we could pass, but only succeeded in further entangling the canopy in the roof fixtures of our bus. Our driver, yelling at the cafe employees for instructions jerked forward until the several dozen people scurrying around the outside of the trapped bus shouted in unison: we were pulling the entire canopy down!
Now, the black clad store owner made his enraged appearance, confronting our driver with threatening gestures and increasingly noisy tirades. Our driver responded in kind and combatants outside and inside the bus raged at one another. The store owner went berserk attempting to claw his way into the bus and reach the insolent driver. Family and friends tried to restrain him repeatedly. His determination became so forceful his aged father and weeping wife worked in desperation to calm him down and get him to leave the combat zone. As his rage built to a crescendo, he picked up one of the dining table stools and hurled it with such great force at the bus four windows next to the driver's compartment were instantly shattered. Now several of the passengers entered into the fray. Only the hostess' refusal to open the doors prevented an all out riot.
What had started as an irksome problem with a giant bus attempting to navigate a narrow, cluttered country road never intended for modern vehicular traffic, had become a police matter. The three bus company employees on board huddled in the isle near my seat as their heated debate finally ended with the driver phoning the police in loud angry tones. Already struggling with the problem for a half hour, we waited another twenty minutes for the police to arrive. During the wait, the store owner's frail, pathetically pleading mother (or grandmother) prevailed on her son to help her back into the store and he left contritely carrying her limp body on his back.
All during the excitement one group of friends nonchalantly continued their game of Mahjong as if nothing unusual had occurred, occasionally interrupting their playing to cooperate with the people trying to untangle the canopy ropes. About a dozen children from toddlers to teenagers never took their eyes off me, demonstrating their delight each time I would pay any attention to them. One old guy studied me continually, like the object of some anthropological investigation. He seemed to have some familial connection with the store owner as now and then he would participate in efforts of other family members to divert the furious guy's attention away from the fracas. During this time I shifted my photographic attention from the curious people to the escalating turmoil outside. Reflections from the windows and my awkward vantage point made really good shots difficult, but I kept shooting. When the police arrived I managed to exit the bus along with most of the other curious and agitated passengers continuing to collect more photographs.
Everyone crowded around the officer, the driver and several cafe employees; all eyes fixed on the proceedings there. My tiny camera went mostly unobserved until I raised it over my head to better record the action. At that point someone in the crowd pointed at me, alerted the cop and all eyes shifted to the foreign devil. "NO PHOTOS!" shouted the policeman in perfect English, the gathered throng apparently in agreement, and all staring at my camera for a perfect final shot. With no desire to investigate the inner workings of a Chinese jail I holstered my camera and beat a hasty retreat back into the safety of the bus. When I eventually processed the photos I found most told the story I intended. This is a glimpse of the unvarnished China I came to see.
Now that the Beijing Olympics plus the Paralympics no longer dominate the news on Chinese television, reporters are focusing attention on the latest scandal: tainted powdered milk! Thousands of babies and small children are getting sick from an additive that was supposed to boost the protein content. A few have died and hundreds have developed kidney stones. This is a good example of the peril we face when tampering with Mother Nature. Improving milk? Indeed.
I cannot end this postcard without mentioning the stock market meltdown that has precipitated a worldwide disruption of financial systems. Here in China markets also are in turmoil. I have seen my personal assets decline twenty percent since leaving on this current sojourn. Last week I seriously considered cutting my travels short and returning to assess the current distribution of my investments. After a few days I realized there is little I would be able to do at home that I couldn't do on this side of the pond.
I'm wondering who got all the money I lost. It didn't just evaporate! Whenever someone looses money, someone else gains. I can't help believing this whole stock market mess has been engineered by people who stand to gain from the turmoil. There is an invisible power elite pulling the strings behind the scenes and only after the damage has been done do we find out who the culprits were. Maybe it is time to re-institute a form of the old Athenian custom of ostracism. Those Greeks had a lot of good ideas. Each year ordinary folks could nominate anyone as the most greedy, obnoxious, reprehensible, undesirable individual in the city-state; the individual receiving the most votes would be banished for ten years. With our modern techno-socio-economics the details would need to be radically different than in ancient times, but if we can put a man on the moon, I'm sure we could figure out ways to annually rid ourselves of the most odious member of our society with a variant of the old Greek solution. Wouldn't that give excessively exploitative politicians or glutinous Capitalists something to think about before giving in to their most unbridled avarice? Naive? Desperate? Yep.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: After returning to Chengdu to nurse my cold and wait for a visa extension I took more pictures.